An Interview with Author Peter Enns

Dr. Peter Enns is known for many things; he’s a Yankees fan, a biblical studies scholar, and, in the years I’ve known him, a frequently-targeted controversial figure.

A former tenured-professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, Dr. Enns originally found significant attention over his 2005 book, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, in which argued that the Bible is analogous to the divine-human union of the person of Christ. As such, we should expect the Bible to have very human elements, including myth. Ideas like these landed him in hot water and took him on a journey out of Westminster in 2008.

Today, he can be found wandering the halls of Eastern University, teaching courses on the Old and New Testaments, mumbling about sports on Facebook, and writing no-less controversial books like his most-recent, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins.

Pete was kind enough to explore the world of changing belief in an interview with me for The Discarded Image this week

The Discarded Image is a blog about “belief changing ideas” or those discoveries that slap us in the face and say “hey, the world isn’t what you think it is.” Would you say that Inspiration and Incarnation and The Evolution of Adam are expressions of something similar in your life? How important are moments of dramatic transition in one’s worldview for a life well lived?

The two books you mention are definitely for me honest expressions of transitions in my thinking over the years. Inspiration and Incarnation was a much slower boil. I had begun exploring these issues even before I went to seminary; in fact, the main reason I went to seminary was to find the space to think through some nagging questions I had been having since my teens. During seminary, some of my curiosities were engaged, but not the more pressing questions concerning old chestnuts like the historicity of the Bible. Graduate school is where I began seeing that other paradigms were necessary to address some of these questions, and at that point I began a journey toward synthesizing my faith and my scholarship. I&I was a product of years of thinking through these “dramatic transitions” as you put it, and it was a first, and very small, step toward engaging similarly-minded people in some important issues.

The Evolution of Adam has a different history behind it. When I resigned from Westminster Theological Seminary in 2008 I had had very little, if any, opportunity to give serious consideration to the question of evolution and Scripture. I never taught the topic or, to my recollection, even mentioned it, and so I had done no developed thinking about it. The primary reason for this is that I, along with a long line of biblical faculty over the decades, held in check my exploratory instincts—not consciously but reflexively, given the environment. It was only several months after leaving WTS that I began to see the intellectual and spiritual dysfunction and harm I had participated in. The more distance I gained from WTS, the more free I felt—intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally—to go where the questions led. In the fall of 2009, I stumbled on the BioLogos crowd, and it was in that context that I began serious thinking specifically about the hermeneutical dimension of the evolution/Christianity discussion.

As to your last question, moments of tension in our lives—call them faith crises, or whatever—are a normal, healthy, part of the mature Christian life. One cannot read the experiences of Job, Qoheleth, psalmists, and others without seeing how pervasive unsettling seasons of our lives are. The problem is that our egos want desperately to be in charge, to maintain order and predictability. But such a life is not a life well lived. The tensions, I believe, are markers along the journey that are necessary to growth.

Since Inspiration and Incarnation, you’ve been dubbed controversial, with young-earth Creationist, Ken Ham, calling your The Evolution of Adam “heretical.” How much value should opinions of what is orthodox or what is heretical drive or limit one’s consideration of new ideas?

That’s a tough question, in part because orthodoxy and heterodoxy are not always as clear across the Christian spectrum as we might like to believe. The smaller a Christian sub-culture one is in, the easier it is to define those limits, though one runs into danger of becoming a sectarian group, which is precisely what Ken Ham has created.

Nevertheless, I think one’s exploratory thinking shouldn’t constantly reinvent the wheel, but be in conversation both with the broad Christian tradition and with those who disagree on the basis of their perceptions of what that tradition requires. Simply put, strong-arming and coercion, on either side, are not helpful. Both conversation partners should approach a sincere disagreement as a potential source of spiritual and intellectual growth, and also be willing to hold their convictions firmly but without a life-or-death grip that too often happens.

One last point—and I am clearly showing what side of the conversation I am currently on—when perceived systems of orthodoxy are seen as unquestioned arbiters of new ideas, the truth is not going to be served, and therefore God is not going to be served. Rather than, “What you say challenges our system, and so you are wrong,” I would like to hear, “What you say challenges our system, yet we assume what you have to say is worth listening to. We do not know exactly where this will go at the outset, but let’s trust each other as we take this journey together.”

Evangelicalism is often known for its more conservative view of science. One recent poll shows that 55% of evangelicals reject evolution in favor of creationism. Do you see an eventual shift in evangelicalism away from its anti-evolutionary persona in the future?

I know people who have been engaged in this struggle for decades, and every time they voice hope that the tide is shifting, a new poll comes out that suggests the very opposite. So, no predictions from me.

The problem in America, as I see it, is that conservative Christian resistance to things like science and biblical scholarship is not simply a theological position, but part of a deeper, sociological make-up. So much hinges on getting the Bible right that giving ground on issues like evolution runs the risk of upsetting the entire system. People generally like a sense of coherence in their lives, particularly when it concerns things like God, ultimate reality, and what happens to you after you die.

This is why debates do nothing to address the difficult issues before us. When one is wedded to a particular all-encompassing life narrative, one is more likely to ignore or adjust contrary data to fit the narrative rather than admit that the narrative—which gives coherence—is in need of serious adjustment.

What is needed to open up evangelicals to the possibility that evolution is a better explanation of human origins?

As I see it, what is needed is for Christians—whether in churches, schools, or by other means—to create cultures that will embody new narratives of coherence. Part of that will invariably involve a mass theological re-education over generations, where Christians (at least those who need to hear it) will come to understand that the Bible cannot carry the freight it is sometimes expected to carry.

Along this line of thinking, you write in Evolution of Adam that you “believe that our theological articulations are always in progress. The truth-value of any theological iteration cannot be judged simply by how well it conforms to past views. Certainly we must be careful to walk the thin line between hardened traditionalism for its own sake and airy speculation for the sake of novelty.” How does one identify that thin line?

First of all, knowing where that line is can often be difficult to judge in the heat of battle. It often takes time to let the dust settle, but that requires patience that schools or churches anchored to constituency opinion cannot always afford to have.

Is there a point where theologians are just making things up out of some need to always provide answers?

Certainly both progressives and traditionalists are guilty of “making things up out of some need to always provide answers.” To switch metaphors, there is a slippery slope not only for progressives, but also for traditionalists. So what do you do? Followers of Christ unite in love, as Jesus said to, and you try to figure some things out over time. You keep being the body even when—especially when—disputes arise.

You also have written a multi-volume school curriculum for parents called Telling God’s Story (Olive Branch Books, 2011), aimed at helping parents understand and teach the Bible to their children. The first phase (or volume) “introduces children to Jesus as he would have been introduced to the first Christians,” which appears to be a good, non-partisan approach. Has this new genre influenced or challenged your approach to writing?

Slight correction. I wrote an overview of the curriculum (a parents’ guide) and the volumes for grades 1 and 2. At this point, other writers will work with the template to get the other volumes out. The publisher and I made that decision to engage more authors in order to create more of a sense of a community in writing the curriculum. It will also mean that the volumes will be coming out a bit more quickly, which I, with my writing and teaching schedule, am not able to do as quickly as I would like.

Which brings me to your question. Writing for children has been the most challenging kind of writing I have ever done, and the experience has been invaluable in making me a better writer and thinker. It is relatively easy to articulate Old Testament purity laws to adults, but you haven’t lived until you have explained them to seven-year-olds. You not only have to be sure you understand the concept yourself, but you now have to translate that into language that is understandable via age-appropriate illustrations. Writing for children has been an exercise in doing what all good writers should do: write in such a way that you will be understood by the people who will be reading it.

Lastly, are there any fiction authors that have challenged your approach to writing nonfiction?

For years now I have been gobbling up the novels of Stephen Lawhead. Most of his books deal with Celtic or Medieval Christian themes with a bit of fantasy thrown in, and in doing so he models a way of being Christian that is utterly foreign to dominant western Evangelical culture. He helps articulate for me the fact that there is more unknown than known about the mystery of God, and I try very hard in my own thinking and writing to keep that in mind. He helps model for me, in others words, an exploratory frame of mind.

Thank you for spending some time with us here at The Discarded Image, Pete. We’re looking forward to reading about your ongoing intellectual exploration in future books.

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Dr. Peter Enns can be found blogging at Rethinking Biblical Christianity and tweeting @peteenns.

In search of belief changing ideas